I recently joined an audience of policymakers, academics, and practitioners for a seminar held at the Institute of Public Policy Research in London, UK. The topic was “Social psychology and policy making: past neglect, future promise,” and it led to a lively discussion about research findings on people’s behaviour toward other individuals and groups, and how this knowledge could be used to deliver better outcomes for society, in agendas from community cohesion to public health.
The goals of changing attitudes to improve outcomes for society and forming new types of social interaction are fundamental beyond social psychology. They particularly apply, of course, to social innovation. The overlap with social innovation was barely recognised at the seminar, but it does exist. And so for me a key question is: What are the potential opportunities if the scope for synergies between the social psychology and social innovation communities is taken seriously?
I found clear intuitive sense in the range of findings summarised at the seminar—for example, the importance of genuine social support networks at times of trouble, and the way that people listen more if they have been primed to be in a good mood but resist if external pressure to help others is seen as interference, or lacking relevance. However, the seminar was weak on specific recommendations for public leaders and policy-makers as to how new forms of social interaction can transform lives and communities. It’s one thing to tell a public leader to increase meaningful interaction between groups in neighborhoods, workplaces, and schools. It’s quite another to tell them what precise actions they should take. Leaders need ideas for tangible actions that are economically, socially, and environmentally sustainable.
That’s why it’s important for social psychologists to work with social innovators and entrepreneurs. Because putting ideas into practice is precisely where social innovation comes into play. Whether it’s introducing new support networks or creating microloans, social innovators do bridge the gap between aim and activity—they initiate, tweak, and refine products and services as understanding improves and conditions change. For social psychologists, then, social innovation and social innovators represent a potentially vibrant source for data and analysis around how our behaviour toward others and toward groups can change and be changed for the better, sometimes (as with Timebank schemes to barter services on a voluntary basis) without much in the way of monetary resources at all.
Meanwhile, social psychology research can help social innovators understand how and why individuals or groups may or may not be amenable to change, as well as offer ways to proceed in terms of research and analytical techniques. For example, simulation models have been used to assess the way co-operation can be supported even in an emergency situation within a crowd; statistical evaluations have been used to study such issues as the link between having children, having friends, and avoiding a downward spiral in mental health.
That’s vital, because as the field of social innovation expands and matures, so should its knowledge base—an issue central to last year’s Social Innovation Europe conference. Perhaps surprisingly, there was an animated debate: I witnessed a clash between those who wanted to see a rigorous evidence base to support large, expanding programmes, and those who wanted analysis to be much more flexible, supporting a culture of freedom and experimentation for their pilots and projects.
A way forward won’t be easy but is possible. As social and environmental challenges get larger, and public resources get tighter, practitioners and policy-makers need to be more and more confident about when and where ideas based on social relationships will really blossom, and what effects innovations have really had. We should be looking to blend the knowledge base and research techniques of social psychology to the enthusiasm and business expertise of social innovators. Putting in place a broader approach to analysis isn’t an add-on—it’s essential.